With continuing grey damp weather forecast for the Dordogne, a boot-load of wet camping gear and a child on crutches, we drove rapidly South and East until we could feel sunshine warming our bones. At a rest area east of Carcassonne we spent a very windy and very funny half hour drying out our camping gear. We thought putting Tom inside the tent while it dried would hold it down, but this proved not to be the case, and within seconds he was tumbling along like spinifex in the desert! Tumble-dried, we pushed on to Collioure, a Michelin two-star Mediterranean town in the Pyrenees Orientales department just 40km from the Spanish border. From very brief research, it seemed everywhere else on the Mediterranean coast in this part of France – a drained swamp now boasting long sandy beaches and mid-rise apartment blocks – threatened to compare with Australia’s Gold Coast and was to be avoided.
The kids decided to spend their pocket money on upgrading to a cabin, at a campsite between Collioure and Argeles-sur-Mer. From there we made various day trips, including one to Perpignan Hospital to get Rosie’s ankle x-rayed as it wasn’t improving. Sprain confirmed.
We were also keen to ‘tick a box’ for the kids – going to Spain. Well, might as well!
Close to the Spanish border we turned off to view ruins at the Site de Panissars, a site based around the Roman Via Dolmitia winding its way from Rome to Spain – a route that existed for a thousand years!
We thought we’d find some tapas and a generally Spanish experience, but this NE corner wasn’t going to deliver and we couldn’t get back to France fast enough! The only attraction was the Dali Museum in Figueres but that was shut. The coastal villages – armpits really – were terribly depressed.
Shane was desperate to get up into the French Pyrenees, remembering them as verdant, precipitous and dramatic, full of rustic stone buildings, ancient abbeys, fortified towns, peeling church bells, ancient pathways, roman ruins, olive groves, nut orchards, oak forests and… they were just as he remembered.
Unable to hike because of Rosie’s ankle injury we saw what we could of the mountains by car. The only walk we did was up to the still functional Abbey St Martin monastery, set high in the mountains. Unfortunately from the budget’s perspective we stopped at the lovely mountain village of Vernet les Bains on Market Day and left with a salubrious picnic on which we fortified ourselves for the huge 30 minute climb to the monastery. Finest goats cheese, plump juicy olives, crunchy-crusted baguette, sweet red grapes and exceptional raspberry juice. Well, we didn’t want to go hungry…
We did the walk in shifts, with Helen guiding Tom and Grade while Shane stayed at a cafe with Rosie, then Shane ducked up no his own.
On the way down, Tom’s perpetual game of Jelly Legs – which sees him running downhill with arms and legs apparently out of control shouting “Jelly Legs!” – went horribly wrong and we had to scrape him up off the trail.
We came to find that this corner of France has a long history of being dominated by both the Cathar religious ‘sect’ and the Spanish. These influences were apparent visiting the fortified town of Villefranche-de-Conflent later that day, where we deposited Rosie and Grace at a cafe whilst the others went for a quick explore of the town. H and T chose to then explore the fortress located above the town, whilst S chose to explore the walls enclosing the town.
The next day was focused on visiting some exceptional Cathar fortress chateaux and getting there involved incredibly scenic winding mountain roads. The weather gradually got more grey as the day wore on, which didn’t show the chateaux in their best light, but they were both truly remarkable.
On the way back to Agen, we camped at Axat, the campsite very dramatically located beneath a massive stone cliff with a clean and inviting river flowing by.
All in all, we were glad to have had an excuse to explore this extraordinary, wild, raw corner of France. Now… To get rid of Rosie’s crutches and get back on the bike!